“People are saying that the Hong Kong we’ve known all our lives no longer exists, and I’m having a difficult time accepting that,” says artist and filmmaker Simon Liu, speaking to Hyperallergic over video call. “I have to believe in a future for this place.” Liu, who was born and raised in Hong Kong and now lives in New York, has made several experimental films out of the vast material he’s recorded during regular visits to his father’s family in Hong Kong in recent years. These films, such as Highview (2017), Star Ferry (2018), and Fallen Arches (2018), depict what he calls a “frantic attempt to encapsulate a dense shroud of memories, feelings, and family sagas” that represent his relationship with a city that’s constantly changing. Recently, though, making work about Hong Kong has become more complex. “Now that things have changed irrevocably, what can we do to move forward?” he asks. “How can we each proceed after crossing multiple points of no return?”
Liu’s latest cycle of films — Signal 8 (2019), Happy Valley (2020), and – force – (2020, co-directed with his sister Jennie MaryTai Liu) — address this question directly. They’ve been produced parallel to the ongoing protests that have taken over Hong Kong, though none depict the unrest directly. Besides engaging with the city’s new reality, these films also encourage reconsideration of Liu’s previous works, which now depict an entirely different city. He says that in place of a sense of “this vague, somewhat hypothetical idea of circumstances changing in the future” is a constant awareness of “daily developments that are altering the city forever.”
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Signal 8 was filmed before the 2019 extradition bill that instigated the protests, then edited as the situation began to unfold. Interspersing banal shots of civic structures with more spectacular signifiers of the city (like fireworks, junk boats, and mid-level escalators), everything moves sluggishly, accompanied by the eerie sounds of distant singing and a gloom-laden drone. Liu says the film was inspired by a call from his father during Hong Kong’s worst typhoon in three decades. “I answered the phone, and the line was all distorted. It felt like something was really wrong.” His family was fine, but the sensation stuck with him: the helplessness of sensing something awry while being “halfway across the world and unable to do anything about it.” Locations that were neutral when filmed were then loaded with meaning, as they became key sites of unrest during the editing period. Signal 8 began as an “anticipation of what might happen,” but by the time of its completion, fears for Hong Kong’s future had “become increasingly concrete.”
Happy Valley was made after a visit in November 2019. Liu again cycles through structures and landmarks, this time with soap opera serenades and warped canto-pop on the soundtrack, signatures of the city’s culture warped just past recognition. He sought to interrogate both intimate memories and historically charged environments, such as British colonial monuments, and how these relics resonate in the shadow of unfolding news. “It was heartbreaking to see how things fell apart in a matter of days, and completely disquieting to experience a place that is intrinsic to my identity become a site for such social catastrophe — a feeling reinforced by the unceasing livestreams of frontline conflicts,” he says. The film also came from a place of distance and dissonance; even when he was proximate to the events, they remained out of sight. He talks about watching the siege of Hong Kong Polytechnic University unfold within earshot of his father’s home: “Although I could see tear gas rising, the water cannons firing, a wall blocked direct sight of what was unfolding. However, this lapse in my physical vision was substituted by the livestream, which was totally surreal.”
Liu and Jennie MaryTai Liu completed – force – in July 2020, the same time as the introduction of new legislation which criminalizes a broad range of acts of protest. Liu says that by necessity, “our work has shifted from considering hidden forces altering the fabric of our home to dissecting explicit new realities.” He wants to ask: “What is this wool they’re trying to pull over our eyes truly made of?” The film quotes inscrutable statements from Hong Kong’s regulatory bodies, jumbling them into stream of corporate pseudo-babble promising things like “continuous quality,” “community,” and “accountability” while citizens can expect anything but. Employing a sickly-sweet aesthetic that mimics corporate social media branding, the film explores how states can talk entirely in “doublespeak” that capitalizes on “the plasticity of truth.”
Reflecting on these films and similar installation works he has in progress, Liu asks, “As a culture that is under increasing threat of disappearance, how can we navigate the boundaries of our expressive rights as artists under these new circumstances without compromise?” He explains: “A lot of political art throughout time has, by necessity, had to take on coded qualities. You would have to scramble your message, make an anagram for someone else to figure out. The ideas are always there, they are just outside of purely logical reach. In my work moving forward, I hope to contribute to a new lexicon of approaches in dealing with the city we love so dearly.”
Many of Simon Liu’s films are available to stream.